Father & Law

updated 05/02/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/02/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

He may play a tough New York City detective on TV, but at home Chris Meloni is just another pampered actor. Eyes covered by cucumber slices, the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit star is receiving an afternoon manicure on the floor of his Manhattan home when his precocious attendant interrupts to ask, "Should I do another color, Daddy?"

Whether if s a pretend "spa day" with 4-year-old Sophia or hanging out in the park with son Dante, 16 months, Meloni, 44, approaches the role of father with the characteristic intensity he brings to the screen every week as SVU's Det. Elliot Stabler. "Fatherhood absolutely surprised him," says wife Sherman Williams, 45. "Before we had kids, acting truly was his only passion. He realizes there's actually something more important now."

Not that the work has suffered. Now in its sixth season, SVU has surpassed the original Law & Order in both ratings and buzz. Meloni has earned raves from fans and coworkers for his chemistry with onscreen partner Mariska Hargitay and his ability to portray Stabler with an equal mix of strength and sensitivity. "Chris has that every-man quality that's very appealing, but he has a very dark side to him too," says executive producer Ted Kotcheff. "There's a look that comes into his eyes and you wonder, 'How did he get there?' "

Gauging his life today, that's a question Meloni sometimes asks himself. Just six years ago the actor was starting out on SVU while winning critical acclaim for his three-year stint as bisexual serial killer Chris Keller on HBO's Oz. His marriage was on the move as well. He had relocated to New York for the SVU job while Williams, whom he wed in 1995, remained in L.A. to continue working as a production designer. In addition to dealing with the distance and long hours, the couple were trying to start a family. "My life was swirling in the unknown," Meloni says.

By 1999 both Meloni and Williams were living in New York and finally planning to have a child—with the assistance of a friend who agreed to serve as a surrogate. "It's so selfless and loving," Williams says of the woman she wants to keep anonymous, but who carried both Sophia and Dante. "That someone would give up that much of themselves for somebody else. It's the greatest gift ever."

And Meloni treats it that way. "When he had Sophia, he was a changed man," says Hargitay. "It just opened up his heart in such a beautiful way. He melts. He's all tough guy, and then he looks at a picture of his daughter, and I've got to sweep him up off the floor! It's hilarious."

The actor admits, however, that fatherhood has made it harder for him to deal with the crimes against children seen on the show. "It's made me ultrasensitive to the realities of what we portray," he says. "That little girl who disappeared in Florida and they found her behind some trailer because of some scumbag...I can't do it anymore. As soon as I see some kid's picture flash up there, I'll get so sad and dark and angry."

Fortunately Meloni also has a goofy side, especially around his family. "He's got a particular dance that he's taught us. It's just hopelessly silly and pathetic," laughs Williams. "The thing that made me fall in love with him was his sense of humor."

That comes in handy when dealing with some of the more enthusiastic fans who greet Meloni on the streets near his family's New York City home. "We can't have a conversation without people trying to shake his hand or say hello," says Williams. "I'm always surprised when it dawns on me just how recognizable he is and how intense his fans are. But he's always very gracious."

Maybe too gracious. "It's great to be recognized when I'm looking for a table at a crowded restaurant, but I still don't put it to best use," says Meloni. "I'm such a lump. I won't cut the line. It's my Catholic guilt. I gotta get used to it."

By Chris Strauss. Natasha Stoynoff in New York City

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